Aroldis Chapman throws the baseball very hard. At his hardest, maybe no ever has thrown one harder. Now, as mileage and innings take their toll, he doesn’t throw quite as hard, but make no mistake, he’s still a flamethrower.
It’s become a bit of a topic de jour for the YES Network to mention Chapman’s declining velocity. It’s true. He doesn’t throw as hard as a 31-year-old as he did as a youngster, especially in Cincinnati. I don’t mean to pick on the broadcast team — hey, you gotta fill time — but Chapman’s velocity is hardly a cause for major concern. Among qualified relievers, his average fastball velocity is fourth-best.
Ah, heavy is the head that wears the crown.
The thing is, Chapman does seem aware that he’s lost just a bit of velocity, and that’s where this story picks up steam. Because he perhaps doesn’t feel as safe just blitzing every opposing batter with heat, he’s turned to his slider more and more the last two seasons. It was always at least a tantalizing pitch, but as we’ll see in the breakdown, when he is commanding the zone with the slider, he remains as lethal as ever.
Consider Fangraphs’ pVal metric. It tells us that for the last two seasons, Chapman’s most valuable pitch has been the breaking ball, not the well-known heater. The fastball remains quite a handful — and when Chapman is on his sequencing game, probably lifts the slider. The combination of the two, mixed around the zone with confidence and command, have kept Chapman among the game’s elite relievers even as age tries to draw its fee.
Chapman closed out the 2019 All-Star Game with epic flair. Let’s take a look.
It’s hard to fake your way into 150+ quality innings. It happens — who else remembers the Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small year? — but there’s a reason why great pitching is considered so rare and volatile. What is true is obviously true. Pitchers get hurt.
A great young pitcher is a rare jewel, surpassed only by the diamond that is a great young quarterback in football. You stumble upon one and you best covet it. It really is quite a thrill — ask San Diego Padres fans about watching Chris Paddack or Cincinnati Reds fans about Luis Castillo. You get excited every day they take the mound, overwhelmed by the possibilities but perhaps always a little worried when it could end.
That isn’t meant to be dark. Just honest. Pitchers get hurt. Severino’s injury — first to his shoulder, then revealed to involve his lat as well, keeping him out until July-ish — meant the Yankees now had to endure again what every other organization has had to endure before. The jewel found a crack.
Enter Domingo German. The young righty is no stranger to Yankee fans. He made a few tantalizing appearances in the Bronx last season, but ultimately turned into a home run pincushion and got hurt: 85.2 IP, 1.5 HR/9, 78 ERA+.
German earned a spot in the Yankee rotation after a solid spring in which both CC Sabathia and Severino were known to start the season on the IL. To say he’s taken advantage of it would be an understatement. He’s thrown 50 innings, struck out 52, walked 15, allowed only four home runs (he’s cut last year’s ghastly home run rate roughly in half) and has an ERA of 2.50 (ERA+: 178).
So how has this happened? For me, whenever someone unexpectedly shines this way, I look at two things: has he magically stopped allowing hits and homers? German’s cut down on the bombs, yes, but not to a ridiculous degree; the hits are definitely going to start falling in, as evidenced by his low .225 batting average on balls in play. Typically, we would expect that number to creep up — for example, the 2019 league average is .289. The homer rate is lower than last year, but not shockingly so, and if he’s improved as a pitcher — and it seems he has — that rate might be sustainable.
All that said, there are absolutely reasons to be excited. For one, German has awesome stuff — we’ll see that in detail later on — and the gifs match the results. His fastball isn’t a burner like Severino’s, but he has excellent spin and hitters struggle to do much with it: .226 batting average, .396 slugging percentage. No, that slugging percentage isn’t sterling, but for a right-handed fastball averaging just under 94? Not bad.
The curveball is the story, though. Hitters whiff 44 percent of the time against it; they’re hitting a paltry .139 and slugging .208 against German’s hammer. Is that good? That seems good.
Up first for the Orioles is Chris Davis, famous for his long slump to open the year. His yearly rate stats are still bleak, but he’s hit a little better since the slump ended and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you give Davis a fastball to hit, he can still deposit it over the wall.
German starts the Orioles slugger off with a 91 MPH fastball right over the heart of the plate. Davis knocks it foul. It didn’t strike me as a particularly bad pitch in the moment, but … probably don’t want to repeat that one, Domingo.
(Side note: this pitch does showcase how far Davis has fallen. The Chris Davis of a few years ago might launch this into the third deck. Now? Doesn’t even pull it foul.)
Note how quickly the young righty works. I keep the gifs as trimmed as possible for page-loading reasons, but rest assured he hardly delays between pitches. He’s right back on the mound each time. Announcers and reporters are surely delighted, as are the infielders. (Especially after covering and playing behind the laborious Masahiro Tanaka.)
Having shown Davis the fastball about belt-high, German nicks the bottom of the strike zone with a nice 80 MPH curveball for a called strike two.
Davis is no stranger to 0-2 counts. He’s been in them a lot. He’s struck out in them a lot.
German is really good at getting hitters to chase his curveball out of the zone; unfortunately, Davis is particularly prone at doing just that. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in previous editions of this series, the pitcher has to work a little harder to set up the punchout. Maybe you go up and out of the zone with a fastball here to keep the batter off balance, for example.
Not here. German spins the 0-2 curveball below the zone and Davis whiffs.
Stevie Wilkerson is up next. The Orioles second baseman is greeted by a fastball well outside that home plate umpire Chad Whitson mistakenly called a strike. Look, I know it happens, but this sucks for Wilkerson. You’re facing a dude with serious stuff and now he’s gifted a strike he didn’t earn, which puts you a pitch closer to dealing with that hook.
We didn’t talk much about German’s changeup — mostly, it’s an OK offering but not special, and likely the most mashable pitch German might regularly throw. It’s fine. It’s not fine if German leaves it over the plate, which he promptly does to Wilkerson. This is easily the worst pitch of the breakdown, and the Orioles infielder pulls it too far foul. This is how doubles happen, kiddos. German got away with one here.
It’s 0-2. Wilkerson’s seen a fastball off the plate and ripped a hanging changeup foul. He has to be defensive here; German loves to put a curveball below the knees, but you can’t forget about a high fastball either. The pitcher holds all the cards here.
He chooses the hammer and it’s an absolute beauty. It breaks well below the shins and Wilkerson can only hope to brush it foul. But it’s too good of a pitch and he joins Davis in strikeout alley.
Look at how tight German’s release points are for the fastball, changeup and curveball in the Wilkerson at-bat. Yes, some pitchers are even tighter, but it illustrates the point. It’s not just the break that makes the curve to Wilkerson so tough to handle; it’s the sequencing and tunneling, too.
With two of his teammates having just exited the stage after flailing at low curveballs, Rio Ruiz comes to the plate. German drops a hammer on him to open his at-bat.
Note that German works outside with it. Hitters notice those sorts of things, even if we don’t intrinsically think about it during a game. If it becomes clear that, say, German can really only throw his curve glove-side and low, well, that becomes valuable intel. It might seem like something small, but the information is priceless.
Credit to Ruiz here. Unlike Davis and Wilkerson, who both were unable to get solid contact on the mistakes German made to them, Ruiz cracks a flat fastball out to left field (101 MPH exit velocity ain’t shabby). Left fielder Mike Tauchman scrambles back to the wall for the catch, ending the inning.
German has helped Yanks stay afloat
Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman surely believes the stars will return at some point. But, until then, he and Manager Aaron Boone are reliant on a hodgepodge of established players, like infielder Gleyber Torres, center fielder Aaron Hicks, and the star-studded bullpen, and non-marquee stars like Luke Voit.
(I would argue Hicks and Gary Sanchez are stars purely on performance, if not name value.)
Then there is German, who is for the moment the best starter the Yankees have. Paxton and Severino will probably be back — I’m far less confident about Sevy, personally — and the Yanks still have Tanaka to anchor things. But with Little Sunday emerging as a dependable, quality starter, the Yankees might be a bit less vulnerable than you’d assume.